HUMANITARIAN ARCHITECT

Helping quake victims with paper-tube houses

by Mark Mccord

NEW YORK — It may be drawn from a deep feeling of responsibility or a perverse sense of guilt, but when architect Shigeru Ban sees the suffering earthquakes bring, he feels compelled to act.

Shigeru Ban

“Earthquakes don’t kill people,” he said in serious, hushed tones. “Buildings do. If we built them better, people would not die.”

It’s a typically enigmatic response from an enigmatic architect. Ban’s paper-tube houses and buildings have won him applause worldwide, not only for their visionary design but also for their application to humanitarian causes; they were used to house displaced victims of the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake and more recently in Turkey.

He was also drawn to the suffering of refugees from Rwanda, for whom he designed cheap, efficient tents to be erected in their temporary camps while the United Nations endeavored to repatriate them to their warring homeland.

Now he is planning his next architectural mercy dash, this time to aid the refugees of the massive temblor that struck western India last month.

“I will be going there as soon as possible. I just have to make arrangements to get the money,” Ban explained between calls during a whistle-stop series of lectures in New York.

When he learned that more than 25,000 people had been killed in Bhuj, the once-thriving Gugarat town that was flattened by the earthquake, he felt he had to act.

“I decided straight away that I had to help,” he said from the lobby of his alma mater, the Cooper Union School of Architecture.

“I am in the middle of preparing right now.”

He has been in touch with a local architect in India and has won the backing of an Indian benefactor in Switzerland, who is finalizing funding for his new project.

“This will be a bigger project than the Kobe or the Turkey ones,” he said. Financial constraints only allowed him to provide a few dozen homes in Kobe and Turkey, but in India, he said he would need to build more. “Of course, it all depends on what money I can attract.”

And money, of course, often depends on celebrity, which Ban has accrued in spades over the past decade. Since his first designs in the 1980s were erected in Tokyo, his stature as one of the world’s most innovative architects has grown steadily. The first of his now-famous paper-tube homes was a small outhouse he built for a friend; the latest a colossal 3,600-sq.-meter, graceful three-domed pavilion that housed the Japanese stand at the 2000 Expo in Hanover, Germany.

His ideas have at times appeared bizarre (one featured a home with no walls and moveable rooms), but when seen to fruition, have been hailed as beautiful. Guided by a desire to make use of useless things, he has used giant paper tubes as wall segments, corrugated cardboard as roofing material and litter as insulation. His has been a prestigious career punctuated by awards and plaudits that honored not only his design talents, but also the essentially humanistic ethos with which he approached them. He has built apartment blocks around trees, constructed houses that were bounded by ivy walls and, in the Hanover pavilion, erected an entire edifice that could — and will be — recycled.

Despite all this, there is one pigeonhole he doesn’t like.

“I am not an environmentalist, as many people say I am. I just hate to see things go to waste. I hate to see things being thrown away,” he said, nervously chopping the air to make his point. “When I was a child, I would walk around construction sites and find things that had been left lying around and make things from them. I just didn’t like to see things go to waste because materials cost so much money. It was all done from a cost motive. I did it to save money,” he said.

After this short tour of colleges in the United States, he will return to Tokyo and continue his work with the Voluntary Architects Network, the nongovernmental agency he helped set up after his experience working in Kobe. Its aims are to foster social consciousness in architectural circles.

“I don’t see my humanitarian work as being any different from my architectural work,” he explained. “I want to make beautiful buildings for people. If I make a building for victims of earthquakes, I want them to be beautiful, too. It is all the same.”

His next major commission is to construct a paper arch as part of the U.K.-Japan show at Kew Gardens, London, in June. That it will be a more modest construction is all the more important in light of events in India.

“I will keep it small. I will not have the time for another large piece.”